Though it pivots on the Pearl Harbor attack, this worm’s-eye view from thoroughly corrupt Los Angeles is a war novel like no other.
It’s complicated, and the author (The Hilliker Curse, 2010, etc.) wouldn’t have it any other way. There's no telling the good guys from the bad in Ellroy's Los Angeles, because there are no good guys. The major distinction between cops and criminals is that the former have the power to frame the latter and kill the innocent with impunity, which they (or at least some) do without conscience or moral compunction, often in complicity with the government and even the Catholic Church. With his outrageously oversized ambition, Ellroy has announced that this sprawling but compelling novel is the beginning of a Second L.A. Quartet, which will cover the city during World War II and serve as a prequel to his L.A. Quartet, his most powerful and popular fiction, which spans the postwar decade. Thus, it includes plenty of characters who appear in other Ellroy novels, sowing the seeds of their conflicts and corruption. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, the four corpses of a Japanese family are discovered in what appears to be a gruesome ritual suicide. It seems they had advance knowledge of the attack (which, by the end of the novel, appears to have been the worst-kept secret in history). The investigation, or coverup, pits Sgt. Dudley Smith, full of charm but devoid of scruples (“I am in no way constrained by the law,” he boasts), against Capt. William Parker, who's plagued by demons of alcoholism, faith and ambition (and who is one of the real-life characters fictionalized in a novel where Bette Davis plays a particularly sleazy role). Caught between the rivalry of the two are a young police chemist of Japanese descent and a former leftist call girl–turned-informant. The plot follows a tick-tock progression over the course of three weeks, in which “dark desires sizzle” and explode with a furious climax.
Ellroy is not only back in form—he's raised the stakes.